Anna coach Nick Marino and senior quarterback Bart Bixler sat around in Marino’s school room for a while during an afternoon over the summer trying to come up with a motto for the season.
The squad reached new heights last year by winning its first Midwest Athletic Conference title, but the playoff struggles that had plagued the program since its first varsity season in 2000 continued. The Rockets lost 42-35 in a first-round game at Elyria Catholic after giving up a last-second touchdown, which they also did in a playoff loss at Middletown Madison in 2017.
“We kind of came up with ‘leave no doubt’ together,” Marino said. “It was about what we wanted to do this year since we hadn’t accomplished what we wanted to the last several years. Even though we’d gotten into the playoffs and had good years, we wanted to take it a step farther this year.”
The Rockets (13-1) will try to take their last step toward disproving what few remaining doubters may still exist when they play New Middletown Springfield (14-0) in the Division VI state championship game at 10 a.m. on Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
“For our school and whole community, it’s huge,” Marino said. “… Our crowds have been big at all of our games, and we’re expecting a big crowd to make it up there. With 22 seniors, we’ve talked to them about trying to make this year a really special experience. I’m really proud of how our kids have played and handled themselves to get to this point.”
There shouldn’t be many Anna doubters left. The Rockets, which beat Mechanicsburg 36-6 in a state semifinal last Friday, shared their second consecutive MAC title this year and have won 11 games with running-clock margins of 30 or more points and scored 42 or more points in 12 games.
Bixler and senior running back Riley Hueslkamp have been a big reason for those lopsided wins. The duo has gained a combined 3,865 rushing yards and scored a combined 66 rushing touchdowns.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a duo that athletic,” Springfield coach Sean Guerriero said. “They’re sound up front too and don’t make many mistakes. That line is powerful. It’s going to be a challenge for our kids to try to run those kids down and try to tackle them and get them on the ground. They can end up scoring from anywhere on the field.”
The undefeated Tigers, which Marino said have many similarities to Anna, will try to stop Anna’s high-scoring attack.
Springfield, which is located south of Youngstown and just north of Interstate 76, didn’t set its motto as “leave no doubt” this season but is on a similar mission. Like Anna, the Tigers are making their first appearance in a state final and won their first regional championship this year.
Springfield tied for ninth in Division VI, Region 21 last year and just missed out on qualifying for the playoffs despite finishing 9-1. The team finished first in a stacked Region 21 this year. It was one of four undefeated squads in the region, and the other four playoff qualifiers finished regular season either 9-1 or 8-2.
The Tigers opened the playoffs with a 34-7 win over Western Reserve, then edged previously undefeated Glouster Trimble 20-19 in a second-round game. The beat Mogadore 35-21 in a regional final, then beat Region 22 champion East Knox 42-14 in a state semifinal last Friday.
Like Anna, Springfield has a high-powered offense. The squad averages 351.3 yards and 40.6 points per game and has scored 34 or more points in 12 games.
Sophomore quarterback Beau Brungard has led the Tigers’ attack. He’s completed 122-of-177 passes for 2,032 yards and 25 touchdowns with four interceptions and has also run for a team-best 989 yards and 18 TDs on 102 carries.
“We’ve got to stop him,” Marino said. “He’s a stud. We’ve got to make sure we’re getting to him and tackling him. From looking a film, it looks like people are getting to him, but they’re not bringing him down without giving up extra yards.”
Austin Tindell has rushed for 710 yards and eight TDs on 97 carries and David Duvall has run for 593 yards and 10 TDs on 106 carries. Garrett Walker leads the team with 809 receiving yards and 11 receiving TDs while Evan Ohlin has caught a team-best 42 passes for 489 yards and six TDs.
“We’re pretty unique in that we can come out five wide or we can come out double-tight with multiple backs and try to get the power run game going,” Guerriero said. “We have a good group of wideouts that are pretty explosive and two good backs that complement our quarterback in the run game.”
Junior linebacker Clayton Nezbeth has led the squad 109 tackles. The team has recorded 16 interceptions and recovered seven fumbles.
Junior kicker Clayton Medvec, who is also an offensive and defensive starter, averages 50.5 yards per kickoff and 40 yards per punt. He’s made 76-of-77 extra-point attempts and 5-of-8 field goals, with his longest being from 36 yards out.
Bixler and Huelskamp are Anna’s two biggest players. Hueslkamp, who was named a D-VI co-offensive player of the year on Sunday by the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association, has rushed for 2,505 yards and 41 touchdowns. Bixler, a quarterback, has rushed for 1,359 yards and 25 touchdowns and thrown for 1,533 yards and 16 touchdowns with four interceptions.
“We try to highlight those two athletic kids,” Marino said. “Our offensive line has done a really nice job and we’ve got good blocking on the perimeter by our skill kids. We’ll throw the ball deep occasionally. Bart’s done a really good job with that this year.”
Anna’s spread offense averages 438.8 yards and 45.1 points per game and its 3-4 defense has allowed an average 242 yards and 12.6 points per game. The squad has a plus 21 turnover margin this season.
The team’s defense is much improved from last year, when it allowed an average of 335 yards and 26.11 points per game. A big help has been the return of senior defensive end Malachi Minnich, who was named third team all-Ohio in D-VI.
“That helped. He’s an explosive kid,” Marino said. “Schematically, we made a change from a 4-front to a 3-front, trying to copy what you see from Marion Local and St. Henry. We’ve maybe struggled to run the ball against them the last couple of years and tried to run some (defensive) stuff similar to them.”
Anna, which will be the first Shelby County team to play in a state final, isn’t the only MAC team playing for a championship this weekend. Marion Local (12-2) is making its ninth consecutive appearance in a state title game and will face Lucas (which is coached by 1989 Sidney graduate Scott Spitler) in the D-VII final on Saturday.
The Flyers are the only team that has contained Anna’s rushing attack this year. They beat the Rockets 17-14 at Booster Field in Week 5. Anna managed a season-low 342 yards in the loss and committed three turnovers.
“We learned a lot from that game,” Marino said. “We didn’t take care of the ball and they came out with a great scheme that night and got after it. It was good for us to regroup after that. It focused our guys.
“A few weeks after that when we were getting ready for Coldwater, we saw a different leadership level from some of our guys. Bart Bixler ripped into some of our guys as the scout team quarterback. He was kind of kicking our butt, and he ripped into some of the guys. That kind of took us to another level, getting him to correct his teammates. They listened and responded.”
Win or lose, appearing the state final game is a sign of the program’s meteoric rise in the last three seasons. Anna had finished 5-5 or 4-6 in the three years before Marino took over as coach in 2015 and then finished 3-7 that year and 5-5 in 2016.
The squad isn’t struggling to get to .500 anymore. The Rockets finished 7-4 in 2017 and earned their first playoff berth since 2010. They finished 8-3 last year.
“We’ve had good football players the last few years and that’s helped,” Marino said. “Taking the step of getting that first MAC title last year and another this year were big steps. Those playoff losses, we just didn’t play the way we’d like to. That’s put some more focus on us this year, and our kids have been really locked in.
“We’ve talked a lot about overcoming adversity to play better in big situations.”
The squad will try to overcome any adversity on Friday. If it wins, the program will be the eighth MAC member to earn a state championship.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.